is clear that I am not the woman after Numan Kurtulmuş’ heart. I have married late, divorced and remarried; spent a decade as a hedonist single between the two marriages and produced no children. The last bit may actually be what Mr. Kurtulmuş and his ilk prefer; at least, I will not be able to pass my dubious values (firm conviction in the equality of women, distaste towards demonstrations of chauvinism, misogyny, racism, homophobia, and war-mongering, firm belief in the European Union) to future generations.
Kurtulmuş, the deputy chair of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and a former deputy prime minister, has long been on the line of fire for his remarks on women. In fact, one can safely say that he and Mahir Ünal, both of whom spout archaic views on women and LGBT, have somehow filled the vacancy created by Bülent Arınç, the party’s estranged founder forever remembered for his words that decent women don’t laugh out loud in public.
Kurtulmuş has moved to headlines earlier this summer by saying that Turkey’s signing of the Istanbul Convention, a major international accord to combat domestic violence, was a mistake. Last week, speaking at a convention of civil servants syndicate Memur-Sen, the AKP heavyweight enthusiastically glorified Turkish families and family values, then turned an accusing finger at the singles: “Strong individualism, coupled with hedonistic trends… have put dynamite on the foundations of the family…[Those individualists] who live alone and see marriage as unnecessary are one of the main problems we see now against the family.”
The remarks have caused raised eyebrows and suppressed chuckles, with Turkey’s keyboard-happy jokers and columnists wondering out loud just what possessed Kurtulmuş to target Turkey’s 3+ million single population, including his party’s strategic partner Devlet Bahçeli, a 71-years-old bachelor. Faced with ridicule – and possibly a bit of poking from his party- Kurtulmuş sought to clarify his remarks, thus sinking deeper: “What I meant was not single people. I have good single friends,” he said, adding he meant “alternative lifestyles” and “single parents."
It is easy to laugh at Kurtulmuş’s blunders or dismiss the misogynous/archaic/sexist remarks from President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan down as a side-show that seeks to divert attention from the real issues, such as the ever-rising cost of living or growing isolation in the international arena. This is not the case. The family – as Kurtulmuş put it “the stem cell of the nation” – is where AKP’s economic, social and cultural policies intersect. The party’s 2001 program refers to the family as the foundation of the society and pledges to prioritize the strengthening of the family, which it claims is the reason that the Turkish society managed to survive despite all problems and economic difficulties.”
For the last 19 years, AKP and its iron-fisted president have sought to increase the number, size and role of the Turkish family. While university students – adults – who want to live together face harassment by local authorities, students who want to tie the knot not only got their student loans canceled but are given a start-up sum. Erdoğan and his cronies repeat the three-children advice to women ad nauseam, from meetings to weddings to which they were invited. They also allude to the role of the family in policing and monitoring the behavior of its members. In a brutal murder when a teenager was murdered and dismembered by her boyfriend, the president told the grieving family that parents should keep an eye on their children.
The rhetoric on the family, predictably, is often oppressive/offensive towards women. “A woman who denied motherhood is unnatural and incomplete” the president famously said. So is a woman who chooses to walk out on her husband. In the mid-2010s, the party has decided to combat Turkey’s increasing divorce rate by proposing a draft law that would impose a longer “reconciliation period” to the estranged couple, where the two would be required to work with a state-provided counselor. Diyanet, Turkey’s vocal religious authority, regularly preaches to women that patience is a virtue, even when faced with psychological and physical violence.
All these do not sit well with the women activists of the country. “Clearly, my mere existence is offensive to Mr. Kurtulmuş,” a friend, a single woman working at an international institution, told me on the phone after Kurtulmuş’ (in)famous remarks. She was on her way to a women’s demonstration at Kuğulu Park, at the heart of Ankara, but could not enter the park which was surrounded by police. She is one of the many women across Turkey who have been demonstrating against the attempts to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention – particularly at a time that sexual violence, rape and femicides are on the rise both in numbers and in sheer brutality.
But the attitude of putting the family before women or considering women as part of the family is also a red flag to the young generation of conservative female voters. In other words, the daughters of the AKP – or AKP-voters – are no longer taking it from the patriarchate. This has been seen in the past, when one conservative columnist said that women with headscarves should not smoke or they would not go to heaven – which spurred a series of sardonic remarks from women, including a column by with the title, “Let’s not meet in heaven.”
Presently, the Istanbul Convention debate has shown the fault lines – including those within Erdoğan’s own family – in which the First (Ok – not the first but the most influential) Daughter strongly upheld the convention. Columnist Abdurrahman Dilipak who targeted Sumeyye Erdoğan and the women’s group she co-chairs, KADEM, as “the daisies of AKP” (a throw-back to the wives of cronies of Turgut Özal, Turkey’s ex-president and one of Erdoğan’s role models) and worse, prostitutes, ended up writing a letter of apology to the president. He was also sued both by AKP and KADEM.
“We do not believe that empowering women is irreconcilable with protecting the family, whose values we uphold,” said Ömer Çelik, the AKP spokesman and among the modern wing of the party, after a party meeting that was expected to discuss what to do with the convention on Aug. 18. “We are assessing the views of all sides. But these views should be expressed without offending women,” said Çelik. Hint, hint Mr. Dilipak and Mr. Kurtulmuş.